There’s a musical I once saw called Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a story about former stage performers who return to their old haunting ground, a once famous theater that’s about to be demolished. The performers are in a transitory phase. The ghosts of their past selves wander the building, eavesdropping on the drama of the present. Their futures are murky and undefined. In the now, the cast grapple with unhappy marriages, paths taken or not taken, the slow rot of age and disease. They bicker and sing and fight until, in the second part of the play, their neuroses transform into theater, burst through the walls of the production and dash the plot to smithereens. From that moment on, the show becomes a Broadway pastiche that develops the characters and their struggles elliptically. The former showgirls and their hangers-on process their anxieties through song and dance because that, more than anything, is what they know how to do.
Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight has always been about theater. What it means to perform, to stand together on stage with your rival, to be adored and then discarded. It’s also a series that has always worn its influences on its sleeve: Revolutionary Girl Utena and its successors, Madoka Magica and popular idol franchises like Love Live. Not to mention the history and traditions of the Takarazuka Revue, the messy Grand Duke from which so much Japanese pop culture descends (including contemporaries like the very good Kageki Shoujo). At its best, Revue Starlight’s staging, its sense of grandeur and eye for symbolism, hit the sweet spot for me between Utena’s boundary-pushing artistry and Love Live’s well-crafted Disney Channel sincerity. But watching the series, I was always tormented by something just out of reach. If the show’s set design so clearly expressed real love of the stage, why is it that the characters never managed to convince me of the same?
I found the Revue Starlight Movie to be clarifying. The TV series made distinctions between the world of the stage and the world of theater, but the film does no such thing. The beginning fills us in on where the girls of Revue Starlight are going, their dreams and aspirations somewhere just over the horizon. Then the lights turn on, the music starts to play and we realize something electrifying: there is no real difference on stage or in film between song, dance or war. There is no plot, the rules of the setting don’t matter. It’s all about the performance, because why wouldn’t it be? That’s what it means to be a stage girl.
It’s not just about performance, though. The Revue Starlight franchise’s most impressive trick has always been its ability to ground surreal imagery in physical stagecraft, even if that stagecraft is exaggerated and absurd. The show’s obsession with machines–sewing machines, hissing steam valves and curtain-raising engines howling like sports cars–has always been its closest symbolic tie with the kinds of show director Tomohiro Furukawa’s former boss Kunihiko Ikuhara likes to make. The Revue Starlight film takes this even further, giving us a whole new set of impractical devices. Transforming subway trains, monster trucks festooned with neon, even (in a section that has to be a reference to the infamous car wash sequence from the Utena movie) a Mad Max style war rig. The Tokyo Tower as always doubles as both metaphor and set design, twisted into apocalyptic landscape, train tracks and a nostalgic landmark as necessary.
Another great example of Revue Starlight’s emphasis on physicality is its use of sculpture and 3D graphics. Modern anime typically lean on 3D effects to utilize skill sets that have become rare among 2D animators–for instance, animating vehicles, giant monsters or crowds. Some of these shows are more successful than others, but most aim for 2D and 3D to fit comfortably together. Revue Starlight has its share of sections that blend 2D and 3D effects to similar effect. But its most memorable prop is a real life giraffe sculpture made of fruit and vegetables. Its appearance in the film is practically framed as a jump scare, exploding into the “real world” like a vengeful god. The creators of the show understood that to shock the viewer in the way they wanted, the giraffe couldn’t just be a drawing. It had to be a physical object. So they built it, just like they would if they were putting on a stage production of Revue Starlight. It is decisions like this that give the film’s imagery real weight. Revue Starlight isn’t a “dream sequence”: it’s theater.
What about the cast? Well, it depends. The film makes up for a lot through staging. I can take or leave members like Futaba or Kaoruko, but their big number in the second half of the film has plenty of fun details. Mahiru is given a chance to surprise us, something that the TV series never accomplished; she’s now better able to hold her own against Wakaba, her peer in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Nana and Junna share what might be the most successful performance from a dramatic perspective, while Maya and Claudine are of course given the big four-act extravaganza they deserve. Hikari is allowed a moment of vulnerability, and Karen (the TV show’s greatest failing) is developed over the course of the film into a slightly more nuanced character.
That said, keep expectations in check. Going into the film, I was wondering if it would be a full-fledged sequel to the original, or a Madoka Rebellion-style tantrum that smashed the status quo of the series to pieces. Instead I was given a revival, another chance for the fans to see their favorite performers go out on stage and sing their best-loved songs. The film tightens aspects that were particularly weak in the TV series, but the bones of that story remain. It is what it is.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the Revue Starlight film after seeing it, but it’s been living in my head rent-free since then. I find myself revisiting the train fight, the bizarre horror sequence in the sports arena, the closing number where Furukawa (in patented Ikuhara school fashion) blows up all the metaphors. Unlike the cast of Follies, the stage girls of Revue Starlight have their whole future ahead of them. Their duels are reconstructive rather than destructive, transforming the angst and excitement and uncertainty of being a teenage performer into rocket fuel to blast towards tomorrow. But when it’s truly cooking with gas, the Revue Starlight film understands what Tony-award winning director and certified genius Stephen Sondheim once had his finger on: it’s the story of your life, baby.